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Lincoln’s Sparrow

by Gail Cleveland

“It’s one of those LBJ’s (Little Brown Jobs). It’s probably a sparrow. Oh, it’s cute. Look at how it raises its crown!” This is most likely a typical response when spotting a Lincoln’s Sparrow (Melospiza lincolnii). These LBJ’s can be seen in Northwestern Montana during the breeding season but with less frequency than their closest relative, the Song Sparrow.

In the genus Melospiza there are only three species found in the United States: Lincoln’s Sparrow, Song Sparrow and Swamp Sparrow, which is a rare sighting in Montana.

My interest in this medium sized, long-tailed sparrow was peaked several years ago when my husband and I found a Lincoln’s Sparrow habituating the brush near our home in Happy Valley. Ordinarily, we had seen them in wet, boggy meadows and other riparian areas, especially along the Camus Creek road in Glacier National Park. The field guides suggest that they breed in wet areas. Yet, we even heard “our” Lincoln’s Sparrow singing on our one-acre parcel, which is not near water. We have also heard them sing in the middle of the night, a technique that some breeding males use to attract females in the area or ones that might be migrating overhead at night.

Cornell Lab of Ornithology suggests that Lincoln’s Sparrows winter in brushy areas, thickets, understory of open woodlands and forest edges. In the next two or three years after our first yard Lincoln’s Sparrow, we began hearing and observing breeding males in the DNRC land near our home. This 500-acre parcel was thinned in the past 10 years. The resulting habitat is much like the Lincoln Sparrow’s known winter habitat. Rather than breeding in their normal wet environment, we have observed 10 to 12 singing males, along with young in late summer. The breeding location that “our” Lincoln’s Sparrows have chosen remains somewhat of a mystery.

Lincoln’s Sparrows breed over much of Canada and the Mountain West. They nest on or near the ground with the nest being constructed solely by the female. It is a cup of woven grasses with soft vegetation as a lining. It is very well hidden usually near the base of willows or shrubs, covered by elevated branches. They have three to five eggs, which are incubated for 10-13 days with the nestlings staying in the nest for another 10-11 days. The young are fed by both parents and almost exclusively on insects, spiders and beetles. The DNRC land must have sufficient food for raising families of Lincoln’s Sparrows.

The Lincoln’s Sparrow’s that we observed sang from branches, often with their crowns raised. Their song is a lovely, musical combination of chirps and trills that have a very bubbly quality. Several field guides comment that the male song is reminiscent of a House Wren. We found this to be true as House Wrens and Lincoln Sparrows were breeding in the same area on the DNRC land. “Is that a House Wren or a Lincoln’s Sparrow?” It became a game to see if we could identify the bird by its song, before we caught sight of it. I can’t say that we were always winners. To hear a sampling of Lincoln’s Sparrow songs visit: www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Lincolns_Sparrow/sounds

Looking closely at a Lincoln’s Sparrow, one finds that they are more than just a LBJ. They have a finely streaked, buffy breast, a buffy molar strip on either side of the throat and a white belly. It also has a slender bill in comparison to its close neighbor the Song Sparrow.

Heading south for the winter, they land on parts of the West Coast, in southern Arizona, New Mexico, Texas and go as far south as Central America. Personally, we have observed them in riparian areas in southern Arizona during the winter.

According to Cornell, Lincoln’s Sparrow populations seem to be stable or increasing. They have shown sensitivity to herbicides, and, like all migrants, they are vulnerable to collisions with structures like towers and wind generators. But, at the present time, they are not a species of concern, and we certainly look forward to having our “mystery” LBJ’s back again next year.

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